STORRS, Conn. – She broke down. Which is not something she does. Not ever. She is a person who thrives on competition, on winning, or at least the pursuit of it. Such single-mindedness doesn’t leave much room for pity parties.
But after five months of keeping up a brave face and force-feeding positivity – even if, at times, it came through gritted teeth – Paige Bueckers couldn’t do it anymore. Just a few feet from where she sat, on the other side of the door, Thomas-Boling Arena practically pulsed with energy.
Twenty-eight years earlier, UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee legend Pat Summitt agreed to play a made-for-TV game on Martin Luther King Day, igniting a rivalry that would come to define and grow women’s basketball. The series continued in its fever pitch for a dozen years, before Summitt put the kibosh on it in 2007.
Bueckers was only 5 when the rivalry went on hiatus. Still, she grew up dreaming of playing in that kind of game, especially on the road. As much as she welcomes the adulation of the home crowd, she really revels in the chance to silence the visitors. Bueckers played at Tennessee as a UConn freshman, but with COVID-19 rules still in place, there were only 3,000-some fans scattered through the 21,000-seat building.
This was the real deal – a full-throated, orange-wearing fan base squeezed into every available seat, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew perched on the endline. Except rather than having a chance to impose silence, Bueckers sat alone, stewing in it. Her teammates were in the noise, in the thick of the din, running through pregame layup lines while she sat alone, adjacent to the action but not in it.
And in the silence of the visiting locker room, Paige Bueckers wept.
Bueckers takes a seat in Connecticut’s otherwise unoccupied theater room and is asked a straightforward question: How are you?
As she begins to answer, she absentmindedly rubs her left knee, almost as if she is summoning some genie living inside her scar to grant her a wish and a concrete answer. The tears from Tennessee are long gone, replaced by the giddy grin and raised eyebrows of a woman itching to go. It has been a long and arduous road back. Recovering from a torn ACL, as Bueckers has been doing since August 2022, is not for the faint of heart. When backed into the tibial fracture Bueckers suffered on the same leg eight months earlier, it is cruelly taxing.
But here sits Bueckers, on the precipice of a new season. Her knee is repaired. It is stronger. It is capable. She is cleared to practice, to play, to revisit the mad skill set and unquenchable passion for hoops that turned her into the first freshman to sweep player of the year awards. But the question isn’t about her knee. It’s about her: How is she? Mentally and emotionally, not physically.
Within the answer lies nothing less than perhaps the entire trajectory of women’s basketball this season. A lot happened last year, none of it tied to Bueckers. Into the vacuum of her absence, others ably rushed to fill the void. Bueckers, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have been tied at the hip since high school, ranked 1, 2 and 4, respectively, in the Class of 2020. Last year, Clark and Iowa staged a season-long collision course with Reese and LSU, ending in the most-watched national championship game in the sport’s history. Clark got the POY trophies, Reese the ring.
Bueckers demurs when asked about her urge to reclaim her spot in the conversation, arguing that the comparisons always have been foolish. The trio play the game entirely differently, and what their respective teams need from them is not the same, either. But her teammates will say what she will not. “She’s not someone who needs extra motivation,’’ says Caroline Ducharme. “But she knows how it goes. Outta sight, outta mind.’’
The same could be said for UConn.
The national championship trophies align like toy soldiers in Geno Auriemma’s office, each positioned just so — tilted slightly to the left, a net draped with perfected casualness atop them. He has not had to redecorate since 2016, a seven-year itch that has left critics wondering if the dynasty is over. At one point, the coach considered giving out T-shirts to his players this year. “Team Demise,’’ he wanted them to read, a nod to those who relish the Demise of The Huskies (who have demised themselves into five Final Fours in the last six years of the tournament).
The questions are, if slightly absurd, not entirely unfair considering how success has been defined at UConn. This is the team, after all, that many thought would be the demise of women’s basketball because they were too dominant. Now the Huskies are nearing their longest title drought since Auriemma took over the program in 1985.
The catch is that Bueckers and UConn go hand-in-hand. How Paige Bueckers is doing is directly correlated to how good the Huskies can be. It is a heavy burden to place on a surgically repaired knee, not to mention the bruised psyche that comes with it.
“That’s the first thing you think: What kind of damage did this do? Not the knee part. That was always going to be fixed,’’ says Auriemma. “Did it make this kid, this fearless kid, scared? Everybody in their own way is anxious to see it. We know where she can take us, but can she take us there?”
Ducharme bolted from the training room last August just in time to see Bueckers, in obvious pain, helped off the court. Athletic trainer Janelle Francisco examined Bueckers’ knee and decided immediately to head to the hospital for an MRI. Ducharme volunteered to go with her. Four months earlier, when Ducharme needed hip surgery, Bueckers saw her through the ordeal. Time to repay the kindness. The trio spent six hours at the hospital, moving from one test to the next. Finally around 9 p.m, the doctor came out to discuss Bueckers’ MRI.
By then, her knee felt a little better — maybe not perfect, but she could get around some — and she hoped the pop she heard earlier wasn’t as dire as she at first feared. “You tore your ACL,’’ the doctor said. He promised to have someone else read it the next morning, but was fairly certain of the diagnosis. Bueckers went home that night, clinging to the minuscule chance that he’d made a mistake.
He had not. “I think I asked ‘why me’ every second of the day,’’ Bueckers says. “I really didn’t believe it. I had anxiety, panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep at night. It was really rough that first week.’’ It got harder before it got better.
Physically, rehab hurts. Bending a knee that doesn’t want to bend, using blood flow restriction to simulate exercise, is excruciatingly painful.
But it does not begin to touch the mental struggle. A body accustomed to doing extraordinary things suddenly cannot climb a single riser on a step; the life of an athlete, so long built into the neat agenda of practice, now spins idly and dully, the joy of playing replaced with the drudgery of rehab.
“Hudy, I’m a baller.’’ That’s how Bueckers described herself to Andrea Hudy, the team’s director of sports performance. Hudy would laugh. “What does that even mean?” To Bueckers, it meant everything. Basketball is stitched into her identity, not merely what she does but also who she is. She plays with confidence because basketball gives her confidence. When Auriemma spied Bueckers shooting corner 3s one day, he told her how Steph Curry made 77 in a row from that spot. “I can do that,’’ she told him. “I could probably make more.’’ Auriemma laughs remembering the story. “There’s no way anyone can believe that, but I think kids like that, that’s why they play the way they play. We think, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ but we’ve also never been that good.”
Hudy used to call her a wild pony, not because Bueckers was undisciplined but because she wanted to do everything and do it all at once. Never miss a minute in a game. Never sub out during practice. Go, go, go. She’d show up at the practice gym some mornings in flip flops and pajama pants and start shooting. When Auriemma teased her that she couldn’t go left, she spent an entire hour by herself using only her left hand. “I’m just extra,’’ Bueckers says with a laugh. “I love doing the hard things and making ordinary things look cool.’’
And now here she was. A baller without a ball.
Hudy leans back in her office chair and points to a whiteboard on the back wall where she has written, “Time,’’ in all caps. It is the four-letter word of rehab, the only solution to getting better and also the biggest obstacle to overcome. Knees heal when they heal, not when you want them to.
Bueckers’ teammates tried to help. Ducharme tore her ACL in high school and managed the daunting timetable by rewarding herself for mini accomplishments. She encouraged Bueckers to do the same. They had a pizza party one week post-surgery, and another when Bueckers shed her crutches.
Bueckers and teammate Ice Brady, who dislocated her patella, became rehab buddies. On game days, they would meet at 7 or 8 in the morning for breakfast, then head to the weight room. While their teammates went through pregame shootaround, Bueckers and Brady rehabbed. “We leaned on each other a lot,’’ Brady says.
Rehab does not follow a linear pattern. Hudy cues up her computer, scrolling until she finds a chart measuring Bueckers’ jump — not so much how high she jumps, but her jump impact. It does not show clean progress, but reads more like a balky EKG or a fluctuating stock market. Good days do not string together neatly on the road to recovery; they are often interrupted by setbacks, restarts and plateaus.
All the while, the season goes on. Many a game day, Bueckers returned to her room and watched her old game films. “Just to remind myself how it was and who I was,’’ she says. “You have FOMO, and nobody really talks about that part. It’s not even envy or jealousy. It’s just you want to be out there with them. Those are your teammates and you love them, and you want to have success, and be a part of it and you just have to sit on the sidelines.”
Hudy remembers seeing Bueckers at that Tennessee game. That same week, Clark went for 40-plus in back-to-back games and LSU rolled to 20-0. South Carolina ranked first in the country, followed by Stanford, the Tigers and Indiana. UConn rolled in a comfortable fifth, but was getting by on a skeletal roster, down to seven players as Bueckers, Ducharme, Brady and Azzi Fudd crowded on the bench. Bueckers eventually came around, greeting her teammates with high fives as they rolled to victory, but Hudy can’t forget watching her earlier, as she first came on to the court. She saw the anguish written on Bueckers’ face. “She wasn’t worried about people missing her,’ Hudy says. “She missed it. She missed basketball.’’
Bueckers grins sheepishly when asked to define her old, pre-injury habits. Sleep arrived whenever she pried herself away from her phone and shut her eyes, and ended just in time to get to practice or class. She might get seven hours? Probably closer to six. Breakfast was a rarity, often skipped in the mad dash to get out for the day. As for nutrition? At six feet tall, Bueckers barely weighed 140 pounds as a freshman. Who needs to watch what you eat?
Odds are Bueckers would have kept along that same path had she not torn her ACL. The only way to become a better basketball player in her mind was to play more basketball. That’s why she never wanted to miss a drill.
But Auriemma and Hudy forced her to look at time as an ally instead of an enemy. Hudy, who is pursuing a PhD, showed Bueckers research – about how female athletes especially need earlier strength training, better sleep and smart nutrition to prepare bodies that can be anatomically predisposed to injury. She explained that the biggest indicator that Bueckers was going to tear her ACL was that tibial fracture in the same leg.
Auriemma harped on the difference between busy work and purposeful work. Showing up in flip-flops and PJs might seem like dedication; 20 minutes of smart drills would actually make Bueckers a more efficient athlete. Bueckers is nothing if not a sponge. Pushed to consider a 20-year WNBA career over a 20-game season, she took the suggestions to heart.
The result: The night before she sat down for an interview, Bueckers tucked herself into bed at 10:30 after taking her melatonin and putting on her blue-light glasses to block out her phone screen. She grabbed in-between meal snacks and smoothies packed with creatine and collagen. The player who Hudy says was “thrown around like a rag doll” as a freshman now checks in at 153 pounds and loves to flex for her teammates and coaches.
“The real difference is confidence,’’ Hudy says. “She is a better athlete than she was pre-injury. A more confident Paige Bueckers? That’s pretty scary.’’
Scary especially since the rest of the UConn roster seems finally intact. Two years ago, Bueckers and Fudd were meant to form the latest UConn generational pairing. They have played all of nine games together. In 2021, Fudd’s foot injury segued into Bueckers’ tibial fracture in December. Now both are finally healthy. Ducharme, who missed a month in concussion protocol last year, and Brady also are ready to go. All four are former top-five recruits. Mix in Aubrey Griffin, Nika Muhl and Aaliyah Edwards and the Huskies have every reason to set high expectations.
In April, they all gathered in Ducharme’s apartment to watch the title game. Hate-watch it is more like it. “We were pretty angry,’’ Ducharme says. “We know we could have been there.” Instead the Huskies were bounced by Ohio State in the Sweet 16, ending an absurd run of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.
It is that – the disappointment, the desire – that fuels Bueckers. Not one-upping Clark or ousting Reese. Simply returning UConn to what the Huskies believe is their rightful perch.
When she finally gets around to answering the first question – how are you? – she does not put on a false sense of bravado. She admits to a mix of early-season trepidation and impatience. In pickup games and full-contact drills, she finds herself a little more timid, less anxious to bully her way into traffic, or throw herself at a defender. Yet she also finds herself trying to do everything all at once, as if she can make up for lost time in one session.
“I want to prove that I’m alright. I want to prove that I’m back. I want to prove that I’m a better player now,’’ she says. “I’m trying to do too much in too little time, where I need to relax and let the game come to me. Things are going to happen when they’re supposed to, and there’s a time for everything, but it’s hard. I just want it all so bad.’’
Auriemma doesn’t mince words, either. He likens Bueckers’ return to sending a newly licensed teenager off on the highway for the first time. “It’s like, ‘I wish she was driving a s—ty car, instead of my nice one.’’
He thinks about the weight of expectations Bueckers is carrying, recalling nearly 20 years ago asking Tina Charles, who would go on to win two undefeated national titles, what she was afraid of. “That I’m not going to be able to live up to who I am,’’ Auriemma says she replied. “The weight the great players carry on their shoulders, it’s not just ‘I have to lead my team,’’’ Auriemma says. “It’s ‘I have to be what everyone wants me to be and expects me to be and I have to be that all the time. Every day.’ But this one hasn’t gone through that yet, and now it’s coming. Now it’s coming.’’
Odds are – though she will not yet commit to it – this is Bueckers’ last shot at solving her own riddle. If she remains healthy, she will likely head to the WNBA at season’s end. Which makes this an all-or-nothing campaign.
“You come to UConn, you come to win a national championship,’’ she says. “That’s what they think of when they think of UConn basketball. We haven’t done it yet, and that’s why everyone thinks what they think. That the dynasty is over, or whatever. But I take that as a compliment because the expectations here are to win, and that’s what I’m here to do.’’
And in the quiet of the Huskies’ film room, Bueckers smiles.
(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Sean Elliot / NCAA Photos via Getty Images; Khoi Ton / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)